A poetic dialogue

Here is a piece of history, a poetic legacy, that exists partly thanks to a U.S. Postal Service that was at the time the cheapest, fastest communications game in the country. Long-distance telephone calls were expensive and rare, telegrams also (hence the famously curt Western Union style). But letters could be exchanged between San Francisco and New York, Maine or Mexico, within two days; unique copies of manuscripts or artwork were entrusted to the mails almost without qualm. Had this conversation been talked out on phone lines, or had the two poets lived in close proximity, we would not have what’s here: an engagement on art, culture, political and domestic matters -- and finally a rupture leaving painful adhesions -- between two remarkable figures in 20th century American poetry.

Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov were committed inheritors of the American modernist poetic movement emblematized by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and subsequently shouldered by Charles Olson. If Pound was the internationalist of the movement, Williams was the Americanist, locating his themes and poetics determinedly in “the American grain,” his sense of American speech, behavior, history and breath, and his own New Jersey neighborhood. It was to Williams that many young poets of Duncan-Levertov’s generation looked as a kind of patriarch, whose blessing they sought, finding each other through magazines like Cid Corman’s Origin. There Duncan discovered Levertov’s early poetry, writing her a poem in response, “Letters for Denise Levertov: An A Muse Ment.” Levertov first bristled at what she took as a slur on her work. But soon the two were in intense dialogue.

If Duncan’s poem seems an awkward tribute, his use of “Muse” was by no means belittling. In his (still unpublished) “H.D. Book,” he was to trace the women who had led him toward poetry: his high school English teacher in Bakersfield in the 1930s; two UC Berkeley classmates; then the poetry of “H.D.,” Hilda Doolittle (a significant poet beyond the aura of her beauty, her relationships with Pound and D.H. Lawrence, her psychoanalysis with Freud). Possibly he sought another such “muse” -- a woman associated with poetry. Levertov, four years younger, born and raised in England and a relative newcomer to the American poetic conversation, found in him a mentor, an admirer of her work and, for many years, an intimate, if rarely seen, friend. But she was not simply his disciple, and she demonstrates, in their long exchange, a growing self-assurance.


“The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov,” meticulously and generously curated by Robert J. Bert- holf and Albert Gelpi, begins in 1953, continuing over a quarter of a century. During the Vietnam War (which both opposed), the friendship founders over a question resharpened today: the poet’s relation to politics, the space for politics in poetry. Or, this becomes the triggering issue, the emotional undercurrent being Levertov’s own trajectory, which deeply disturbs Duncan. These were two people of strong opinions on more than poetry. A close, mutually confirming artistic relationship may be like a marriage: Until a crisis, underlying tectonic shifts don’t get talked out. In our plot-driven world, we may assume that the crisis is the real story. But I want to focus on how, in these letters, two distinctive artists tried -- beyond gender, sexual orientation, politics -- to work out, with and against one another, the values and processes of their art. Up to the eventual rift, there was passionate trust in their dialogue, and they bequeathed much to the future, saving almost all of each other’s letters.

One striking background element is the noninstitutionalized time in which they start writing: Poets emerge and connect, cluster, in odd and chancy ways. No master of fine arts programs, no resume-building, no academic credentials (Levertov was home-schooled, Duncan a 1930s freshman dropout from Berkeley). Though they help each other get readings and share advice on magazines and grants, it’s not a career culture in terms of money and professional security to be obtained as poets. The idea is to do one’s work, live decently, travel when possible. Part-time teaching, editing, translating and reviewing pay the bills; urban rents are cheap; a freelance life (especially given a middle-class background) is still livable. Publication by small letter presses and in marginal experimental magazines is gladly sought. Duncan and his life partner, the artist Jess Collins, eventually buy a house in San Francisco thanks to the monthly income from a trust fund left by Duncan’s mother. Levertov, with a less-published husband, novelist and journalist Mitchell Goodman, and their young son, struggles to piece things together. As Duncan writes, with “the light bill, food, installments on refrigerator etc ... the dammed money looms large. For all of us -- " Yet there’s also freedom from the enclosures of academia; these poets were each others’ workshops. “What I love about you specially is your capaciousness,” Levertov writes to Duncan in an early letter. "(I love you for reading Wordsworth now, for instance.) Without having anything like your deep understanding and grip of things I do have the same kind of zest for different things, different worlds really.... Your fearless appetite -- how timid it makes most people’s responses seem!” And Duncan: “It’s you, Creeley and Olson that always are there for me ... whom I imagine when the best is there, when the poem turns one of its wonderful clear things for me, as sharing my joy in the thing made.”

Among the questions to be explored early on was that of judgment, of how to make poetry in a 1950s conformist America in which modernist poetics were, like left politics, on the defensive from academic criticism. For Duncan and Levertov, the freeing of the imagination in poetry was to be realized through form and language, breaking with “verse conventions” but by no means through formlessness or mere self-expression. The emergence of the “Beats” did not overly impress them; though she admired “Howl,” Levertov found Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky jejune; both saw Ginsberg, moreover, as hustling celebrity. She and Duncan were in accord as to the integration of the life to be lived with the poetics to be pursued. In an early letter, Duncan has been reading Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and suggests: “What if poetry were not some realm of personal accomplishment, open field day race for critics to judge, or animal breeding show ... but a record of what we are, like the record of what the earth is is left in the rocks, left in the language? Then what do we know of poetry at all compared to this geology? And how silly we must look criticizing ... as if geologists were to criticize rather than read their remains.”

But criticize they did, and many a friend and fellow poet would come under their criticism, whether for bad personal behavior or for writing or abetting bad poetry. Levertov: “Did you like Dorn’s poems? I do -- in a way -- but I’ve had in the last year (barely) certain revulsions of feeling about his work -- it doesn’t satisfy me because more and more I need a care for form in a poem.... I need poems that have some sculptural quality -- not that they should be static but that they should be solid bodies in movement, instead of (what so many modern poems are) fluid substances (in movement or at worst stagnant).... The Kelly/Rothenberg/Schwerner/Economou group ... have more concern with craft, so much more than the Beats ... and yet their poems do not satisfy me.... There is no moral backbone, no sharpness of necessity, in these poems.”

To which Duncan responds: “What I do ... in response to your letter ... is to contend. And it obscures perhaps just the fact that I am contending my own agreements often.” He touches on Eliot and Rilke as poets he has wrestled with: "[T]he thing I’ve found is how my own judgment has shifted.... Tho I aim at keeping my consciousness open (my ideal would be an expanding awareness) my appreciations narrow.” But then, the working poet’s resolution: “we too if we are to realize some wide and generous risk, to let a poem go out that far to include (you say the whole man) -- well some substitute -- ersatz, stand-in for we know not otherwise how to do.”

The texture of their dialogue is thick and various not only in their evaluating of predecessors and contemporaries but in each one’s thinking aloud on the page, as it were, about the making of poetry, to a comrade for whom these matters were of first importance. The letters offer the 21st century reader or working poet a richly provocative discourse: on poetic praxis, on visual art (an important resource for both), on formal strategies down to the placement of lines and syllables. Levertov: “I’m torn between a sense of affirmation of that idea -- not to revise (not unless it is a complex new seeing) not to polish, to stammer if one stammers, etc. -- and my sense of craftsmanship, for the complete (by which I don’t mean the closed, the dead.) Maybe the conflict is one of those blissful uncertainties that is fruitful -- certainly it’s one I’ve had with me a long time -- so I don’t want to solve or resolve it -- but it interests me to know how far you’d go, or whether your own attitude has changed?”

And Duncan: “I revise (A) when there is an inaccuracy, then I must re-see, as, re. in the ‘Pindar’ poem -- now that I found the reproduction ... of the Goya painting, I find Cupid is not wingd; in the poem I saw wings. I’ve to summon up my attention and go at it. (B) when I see an adjustment -- it’s not ‘polishing’ for me but a correction of tone, etc., as in same poem ‘hear the anvils of human misery clanging’ in the Whitman section bothered me, it was at once the measure of the language and the content -- Blake! not Whitman (with them anvils) and I wanted a long line pushed to the unwieldly with ([Jack] Spicer and I had been talking about returning to Marx to find certain correctives -- as, the idea of work) marxist flicker of commodities (C) and even upon what I’d call decorative impulse.....

“My ‘no revisions’ was never divorced from a concept of the work.... Whatever vitality, you’ve got just whatever you have there -- but the poet makes a concentration, a focus. I’ve got to have the roots of words, the way the language works, at my fingertips, learnd in the nerves from whatever studies, in addition to the thing drawn from.... “

At first, Duncan’s are the longer, most discursive letters. Levertov writes more concisely and factually, from a more practically pressured life: She cares for a young son, tends a husband’s moods and illnesses, sews name tapes and washes socks, has a brief love affair and decides for her marriage, visits her aging mother in Mexico, looks after her aged father-in-law when he visits and tries to write and read in the meantime. When she finally gets a Guggenheim Fellowship, part of it goes to buy a washer and dryer for the home. Duncan was living with Jess Collins in the homophobic, McCarthyite 1950s and ‘60s as an openly gay man with a profound desire for domestic civility, for “the hearth,” at a time in American life when gay domesticity was seen, even more than today, as an oxymoron. His letters are landscapes or collages of a vividly endowed mind: deeply read, eclectic, contentious, self-referenced often, original, insistent upon a kind of morality of feeling, self-corrective as well. (He condemns not only the Vietnam War but the virulence of Southern racism, has read American history along with William Blake and Jacob Boehme.) An exchange in January 1961 gives the timbre of two differently paced lives intensely conversing:

Levertov: “On November 29th you sent me the revised ‘Risk’ and some Emily Dickinson poems. You know, actually those dashes bother me -- it seems to give a monotony of tone. I can’t quite explain it. But if they were actual spaces it would work better for me. I’d like to compare those poems with their versions as usually printed but I don’t have an Emily D.... There’s something cold and perversely smug about E.D. that has always rebuffed my feelings for individual poems of hers.... She wrote some great things -- saw strangely -- makes one shudder with new truths -- but ever and again one feels (or I do) -- ‘Jesus, what a bitchy little spinster.’ ” (Later she was to revise her view.)

In the same letter, continuing a discussion of poetic imagination:

“When this kind of imagination -- the presence of felt-through absolutely convincing details -- is manifested it excites and delights me -- shakes and moves me to tears -- more than any other single manifestation, I think. I’m sure I don’t have as good a sense of the overall drama as you, or Mitch, for instance.... perhaps it is being a woman. But I have this love of certain kinds of verisimilitude so that even thinking about it in quite a generalized way is almost a sensuous, no, sensual experience, sharp and exquisite.

“It has not been a very productive autumn -- I have really suffered from a lack of leisure -- I sound complaining but it’s really been worse than ever before.... I became physically over-tired early on -- cleaning up before we left Maine, then 15th St -- then the tremendous job of the move (packing & unpacking the books and all the things -- Mitch was busy painting this place so I did almost all the packing) -- and never really regained my energy ... (But it’s not all physical -- I know part of it is boredom with housekeeping because I can always summon energy to do what I really enjoy!) (Like writing to you -- and of course once really engaged on a poem I can stay up all night without any trouble -- until the next day at least.)”


“The important thing for me in Jerry [Rothenberg]'s work or [Robert] Kelly’s thought is that they are searching for their depths; the mistrusted thing is that they have identified ‘depth’ with strangeness....

“It is time to re-iterate what to be radical means, what roots are, what form and image, and service means. That creation is neither conservative nor liberal, but radical. But my mind in recoil goes into a knotted tangle....

“I’ll not give at all on your sense of Emily Dickinson.... her work comes through to me without any interfering bother about her personality, and in poems like the one I sent you comes thru as a pure voice....

“And I’ve been fighting about in some paperbag, Denny, of dangers or walls I contend against in the conflicts you present. Dearest Jess, who sees clear (where I try to struggle) says: The major sin is making the arts citadels to be defended or attacked, then our thought becomes military.”

Early in the correspondence, Duncan wrote: “We are lined up in the Armageddon of verse conventions against form or poetry. But I don’t believe in this battle of the species.... As makaris we make as we are, O.K.? and how else? It all however poor must smack of our very poorness or however fine of our very fineness.” Battles nonetheless were to come; grievous as they were, underscoring the quintessential humanness that was there all along.

By 1964, Levertov’s letters suggest an increasing sense of her own authority (“I’m not interested in adhering to anybody’s rules at this point”) as she teaches, edits, begins selecting poetry for W.W. Norton. Letters flow back and forth; the war in Vietnam is intensifying; Duncan writes a furious poem (“Up Rising”) that Levertov, increasingly engaged in the antiwar movement, publishes in The Nation. In 1966 she writes of a poetic argument: “I stand fast by what has caused me to feel. And the range of response in you and me overlaps -- & that is a large area -- but beyond the area of overlap extends in quite different directions. Years ago that would have shamed and embarrassed me -- but now not. You are more the Master, a Master poet in my world, not less, just because I feel that the only emulation of such a master is to be more oneself.”

There are other poetic disagreements; then conciliatory and loving letters; mass opposition to the war is mounting; Mitch Goodman stands trial with others for conspiracy to incite draft resistance; Levertov, at Berkeley, speaks at a demonstration, seen by Duncan on television: He charges her with mistaken and neurotic frenzy, betraying the role of the poet (“not to oppose evil, but to imagine it”). She (in one of her longest letters): “I think it is bullshit, what you say.” The letters become a kind of embraced wrestling, not just with one another but with passions, beliefs and vulnerabilities within themselves; Duncan attacks, Levertov begins withdrawing, silences get longer.

By 1975, Levertov, now divorced, has moved into an increasingly public life. In 1978, Duncan attempts reconciliation; she writes first coldly, then regretfully: “your letter came at least 2 years too late.... There can be a statute of limitations on emotional commitments, though one might like to think in terms of eternal loyalties.... I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t pretend ... " Ten years and a few brief notes later, Duncan is dead of kidney failure.

But the letters, on both sides, were saved. American poetry -- and more than poetry -- is the beneficiary. We go on suffering questions they suffered -- opposition to official public violence, the ethical dimensions of form, how to love in principled disagreement, the incommensurability of art.